|extract, Nelson's Column, page 15,|
East Devon Coast & Country, Dec 2012
I did, however, catch one of its regulars in an error in the December 2012 edition, with a reference to a quotation concerning dyspepsia:
How many serious family quarrels, marriages out of spite, alterations of wills, and secessions to the Church of Rome, might have been prevented by a gentle dose of blue pill? What awful instances of chronic dyspepsia are presented to our view by the immortal bard in the characters of Hamlet and Othello! I look with awe on the digestion of such a man as the present King of Naples. Banish dyspepsia and spirituous liquors from society, and you would have no crime, or at least so little that you would not consider it worth mentioning.I've seen this attributed to Charles Kingsley previously, in thoroughly respectable sources as well as unreliable Internet quotation sites (the author of Nelson's Column, like many others, omits the segment about "secessions to the Church of Rome", presumably out of modern sensibilities). But I only just decided to try to find the precise source.
It turns out not to be written by Charles, but by his somewhat similar brother Henry Kingsley (they were both novelists into Muscular Christianity, though Henry led a rather more adventurous life, for a time involved in gold-prospecting and mounted police work in Australia).
The quotation tracks down to Henry's 1859 novel The Recollections Of Geoffrey Hamlyn, which was begun on an Australian station, Langa-Willi. You can see it at the top of page 270 in this edition of the novel at the Internet Archive (ID cu31924013492974).
The blue pill does, however, get a mention in Charles Kingley's 1855 Glaucus: or, The wonders of the shore, in his description of the digestive arrangements of the sea-cucumber:
For hear it, worn-out epicures, and old Indians who bemoan your livers, this little Holothuria knows a secret which, if he could tell it, you would be glad to buy of him for thousands sterling. To him blue-pill and muriatic acid are superfluous, and travels to German Brunnen a waste of time. Happy Holothuria! who possesses really that secret of everlasting youth, which ancient fable bestowed on the serpent and the eagle. For when his teeth ache, or his digestive organs trouble him, all he has to do is just to cast up forthwith his entire inside, and faisant maigre for a month or so, grow a fresh set, and then eat away as merrily as ever.The blue pill was not an indigestion remedy in the modern sense of the term, but one rooted in the days of belief in routine purging: a mercury-based laxative. It was nasty stuff: cases weren't unknown of taking a dose for three successive nights causing "fatal salivation" (which seems to have been a chemical burn of mouth and throat). OK, we shouldn't necessarily judge a drug by potential toxicity: for example, strychnine and arsenic had genuine medical use historically, and sometimes we tolerate a quite narrow margin between therapeutic and dangerous dosage even nowadays (for instance, with paracetamol). However, the Victorians were well aware of mercury toxicity, and there was a deal of discussion of benefits vs risks.
Probably the fullest contemporary one is George Gabriel Sigmond's 1840 Mercury, Blue Pill, and Calomel: Their Use and Abuse (see Google Books). It makes interesting reading, particularly the introduction describing the historical uses (often with horrible consequences) of mercury and its compounds. A modern book, Quicksilver: A History of the Use, Lore and Effects of Mercury (Richard M. Swiderski, McFarland, 2008) is a very good study of the history, referring, like Sigmond, to the dubious legacy of John Abernethy, an eminent surgeon whose 'dark side' was advocating the blue pill as a cure-all for just about every ailment (see the preview of Chapter 6, Little Blue Pills).